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A.I. Artificial Intelligence   B

Warner Bros. Pictures / DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Ian Watson (based on a short story by Brian Aldiss)
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, William Hurt, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards, Brendan Gleeson.

Review by Rob Vaux

After 30-odd years of filmmaking, Steven Spielberg still can't stay away from the warm fuzzies. Even when he's at the top of his game, even when he produces films of such beauty and artistry that they take your breath away, he still insists on adding that maudlin bit of sunshine to the proceedings. Consider the superfluous framing device in the otherwise flawless Saving Private Ryan or Liam Neeson's unfortunate final speech in Schindler's List. Great movies. Masterpieces. But possessing a few brief, unnecessary moments of cloying sentiment.

Consider, then, A.I., a project Spielberg inherited from the late Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick's films were about as cuddly as rectal probes, and for nearly two hours, A.I. adheres to the late master's modus operandi. They're two of the most challenging, haunting hours you'll see this year. Then the roof caves in. Though he has the chance to finish with a flourish, Spielberg insists on tacking on an extra 30 minutes of baffling schmaltz which all but upturns the entire affair. The result is still an impressive piece of work, but leaves you pining for what could have been.

Certainly the subject material has more weight than any summer movie in recent memory. A.I. presents us with a future at once wondrous and grim. The polar ice caps have melted, drowning the world's coastlines and putting cities like New York and Venice under water. Yet humanity has thrived thanks to careful population control and an increasing reliance on intelligent robots -- "mechas" whose self-reliance keeps them from consuming precious resources. As the film opens, one of the world's leading scientists, Professor Hobby (William Hurt) proposes a radical advancement in artificial intelligence. He intends to create a robot with the capacity to love.

Such a concept is hardly unheard of in the annals of film, but Spielberg tackles it with remarkable thoughtfulness. How do we define "love" as Hobby wishes to do? Is it merely a question of preprogrammed responses, or is it possible to give a machine genuine emotions? More importantly, what impact will such a machine have on those close to him? In the world of A.I., necessity has blinded us to the implications of these questions, but Spielberg never flinches from asking them.

The result of Hobby's effort is David, an artificial boy designed to unconditionally love whoever activates his imprinting program. Brilliantly portrayed by Haley Joel Osment, David finds himself in the home of one of Hobby's employees (Sam Robards) whose son is in a coma and whose wife (Frances O'Connor) is going mad with grief. At first, his presence comforts them, but when their real son reawakens, David's relentless devotion threatens their newly rediscovered happiness. Rather than return him to the lab, where he will be destroyed, they abandon him in the woods, hoping that he will be able to fend for himself. Alone and with only a mechanical toy bear for guidance, David's programming convinces him that he must shed his mechanical form in order to regain his "mother's" love. Inspired by the story of Pinocchio (and apparently unaware of its fictional nature), he embarks on a quest to find the Blue Fairy, who he believes can turn him into a real boy.

The fairy tale motif struggles at times, but the rest of A.I. holds you fast within its power as David journeys from the sheltered world of his foster parents into something out of a nightmare. Here Spielberg's knack for visual marvels combine with Kubrick's clinical pessimism to create something truly unique. From the horrific "Flesh Faire," where humans destroy machines in a sort of twisted demolition derby, to the forgotten garbage pile where discarded robots search desperately for missing parts, A.I. shows us how mechas are really little more than tools to be used and thrown away. With remarkable grace, it compels us to question the nature of David's quest: whether his desire to be human truly represents a soul, or if it's simply a natural offshoot of a sophisticated object. In addition to the masterful pacing and a series of unparalleled special effects, A.I. benefits from two outstanding performances: Osment's and Jude Law, playing a robotic gigolo who aids David in his quixotic quest. The deft combination of both auteurs comes off nearly flawlessly, and for a time it appears as if A.I. might have a place among Spielberg's greatest works.

For a time.

The fissures lurk throughout the film, but A.I. works around them quite admirably... until the unfortunate concluding sequence. I won't reveal the details here, but suffice it to say that it presses on far past the point where the film should have logically concluded. Here, the seamless fusion of Kubrick's vision and Spielberg's split into two. Though it bears a resemblance to the finale of 2001, it contains none of that former film's quiet intensity. Instead, it gushes with the shameless sentiment that Spielberg is notorious for, spilling over with pretentious speeches and weepy-eyed actors. The dramatic impetus slows to a crawl, and the complexities suddenly descend into movie-of-the-week territory. Though delivered with the same technical expertise as the rest of the film, it lacks any semblance of discipline or artistry. The jarring coda can't undo what A.I. has achieved up until then, but it leaves a distinctly unsatisfying feeling when the credits roll.

Filmmaking on this level always demands high standards, and A.I.'s failures still stand above what most movies even aspire to. Most of the time, it confirms Spielberg's status as king of the cinematic cage, and contains moments that no film lover should miss. Its near-greatness makes the missteps stand out all the more, confounding our efforts to truly appreciate its message. You won't regret seeing A.I., and you may find yourself dwelling on its themes for some time afterwards. Just brace yourself for that last bitter letdown... and try not to hold the rest of the film responsible.

Review published 07.02.2001.

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